While company profits have remained high and spending on content has grown, writers are falling behind.
The companies have used the transition to streaming to cut writer pay and separate writing from production, worsening working conditions for series writers at all levels. On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season. And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.
In comedy-variety, writers working for streaming services—which are now the primary platforms for entertainment content—lack the most basic protection of MBA minimums.
For screenwriters, compensation has also stagnated over the past four years. Their pay is often stretched out over many months and can be held hostage by producers’ demands for free work. Particularly for screenwriters working at or near MBA minimum, these conditions are untenable.
With the rising dominance of streaming—where half of series writers now work—short orders, the separation of writing and production, and the lack of a season calendar have depressed writer pay.
As the chart below shows, at every job title, more writers work at MBA minimum now than a decade ago. In the 2013-14 season, 33% of all TV series writers were paid minimum; now half are working at minimum. Increasing numbers of seasoned writers, including showrunners, are now paid no overscale premium for their years of experience.
Writers Working at MBA Minimum
|Job Title||2013-14||2021-22||% Pt. Change|
|Executive Story Editor||43%||58%||+15|
Median weekly writer-producer pay has declined 4% over the last decade. Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%.
In addition to falling weekly pay, most writers on streaming shows are earning less per season because of shorter work periods. As the chart below shows, the new “typical” employment for lower- and mid-level writers on a streaming series is 20-24 weeks, or only 14 weeks if the room is convened without a series order (ie, a pre-greenlight room). Showrunners, on the other hand, are working almost the same number of weeks in streaming as they do in broadcast, reflecting the true length of time these series take to complete. More than 40% of showrunners working on streaming series reported working for over 52 weeks on their most recent season.
Median Weeks Worked, 2021-22
|Job Title||Streaming||Network & CW|
|Executive Story Editor||20||40|
Many upper-level writers—40% of Co-EPs, EPs and Showrunners on short-order series—are left without span protection because they earn over the MBA threshold. With long production schedules, these writers find their episodic fees amount to little more than weekly scale when stretched over so many weeks. Without span protection, their median weekly pay is nearly 50% lower than it would be if their episodic fee only covered 2.4 weeks of work.
Co-EPs, EPs and showrunners on streaming series also earn much less on a weekly basis than their peers on broadcast series. Median weekly pay for showrunners on streaming series is 46% lower than for showrunners on broadcast shows.
Span: Protecting Overscale Pay for TV Writer-Producers
Since 2017, the MBA’s span provision has offered some protection against the erosion of overscale pay for qualifying writer-producers on short-order series. Span protection limits the period of time covered by a writer-producer’s episodic fee to 2.4 weeks of work. If a writer-producer works longer than 2.4 weeks, multiplied by the number of episodes (e.g., 24 weeks for a 10-episode order), additional compensation is due.
However, this protection is limited to writer-producers earning under $400,000 on broadcast, pay TV, or HBSVOD short-order series, or $375,000 for writer-producers working on basic cable short-order series—leaving many upper-level writers unprotected.
In 2015, Netflix expanded its original content production to include comedy-variety and talk shows with the launch of With Bob and David. Other streamers followed, and since then more than two dozen comedy-variety and talk series have been made for streaming services, employing several hundred writers. Series like The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock and The Problem with Jon Stewart on Apple use the same formats, and draw from the same workforce, as Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC or The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
But the companies have refused basic MBA protections—minimums for scripts and weeklies—for comedy-variety writers when they work on streaming series, even though episodic writers working for the same companies have those minimum standards. Under the current MBA, compensation for writers on streaming comedy-variety series is entirely negotiable. Unsurprisingly, the amounts paid to these streaming writers are often lower than those paid to their peers.
In the theatrical market, the decline of DVD sales drove the studios to focus on tentpole features, depressing employment for screenwriters in the period 2008 to 2015. Streaming has increased demand for feature-length films, with movies now a key part of streamers’ original content lineup. However, the variety of release strategies has created uncertainty about the contract terms applicable to writers on these projects, with many SVOD films subject to lower MOW rates.
Median screenwriter pay hasn’t budged since 2018. When accounting for inflation, screen pay has declined 14% in the last five years. And that pay can be stretched over unacceptably long periods of time—particularly for those paid at or close to minimum.
|Median Employment Duration – Screenplay Deal|
|First Draft under $150,000||9 months|
|First Draft over $150,000||6 months|
Writers earning less than $150,000 for a first draft work 50% longer than writers earning above that threshold, as lower-paid or newer screenwriters can be uniquely vulnerable to producers’ demands for free work. Many writers are also employed on one-step deals, guaranteed only a single draft, but subject to endless demands for free rewrites. These demands contribute to lengthy employment periods, as writers who are still owed 50% of their fee for delivery are frequently held hostage to requests for more unpaid revisions.
In this context, screen minimums are far too low. The current minimum for a first draft non-original screenplay is just $60,932, which is only 1.2% of the minimum budget threshold of $5 million—or 0.3% of a still-modest $20 million budget.
The companies have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work. Our 2023 negotiations must significantly address writer compensation.